There are numerous situations where you might want to quickly record a video on your phone without it actually looking like you’re recording a video on your phone, whether you’re looking to stay safe in a vulnerable situation, protesting in a country that doesn’t necessarily want to see anyone protesting, or keeping law enforcement accountable.
This puts Apple and Google in a bit of a bind, because hidden video recording on a smartphone is not something that they want to encourage. Yes, it can be useful and potentially life-saving — but it can also be very easily abused for all kinds of sinister purposes. With that in mind, there aren’t any apps or tricks you can use to record video completely in secret.
There are, however, tricks for quickly recording clips while your phone is locked, and dimming the screen while video is being recorded, and more besides. It’s worth knowing about what these options are on your phone, should you ever be in the situation of needing to rely on one of them.
If you need to quickly get to the video recording functionality on an iPhone when the screen is locked, press the power button, long press the camera button (lower right), then press and hold the shutter button: The photo mode suddenly becomes the video mode, and a recording is initiated.
You’ll need to keep your finger pressed down for the recording to continue. Once it’s finished, only the clip that’s just been recorded will be accessible without unlocking the device fully — to stop anyone accessing this most recent video too, you can lock the phone again with another tap on the power button.
Some more functionality can be added with the I’m getting pulled over Siri shortcut (the work of Robert Petersen). Once you’ve installed it, say “I’m getting pulled over” within earshot of Siri, and a video recording starts from the front-facing camera. The screen is dimmed at the same time and Do Not Disturb is turned on, to stop any unwanted attention being drawn to your smartphone.
While the shortcut will run while your phone is locked, you will need to unlock it to start the recording, and to pick the recipients who you want to send it to when it’s finished. You can also set videos to automatically upload through your favourite cloud storage app of choice (if that happens to be iCloud, you can make sure auto upload is enabled by opening Settings, then your Apple ID name, then iCloud).
There is an accessibility trick for enabling video recording while the screen is off, though the recording must be started while the screen is on and unlocked. From Settings, choose Accessibility and Accessibility Shortcut, then enable VoiceOver (the screen reader utility). From the camera app, start capturing video, then triple-tap the power button to enable VoiceOver, and triple-tap on the screen with three fingers. The screen goes off, but the recording continues. Reverse the process with the triple-taps to go back to normal.
As you would expect, Apple doesn’t give third-party apps the ability to record video in the background or while your phone is off. The closest app we’ve found is SP Camera: It will cost you a few dollars but it makes an attempt to conceal the fact that video recording is happening by shrinking the camera view and putting other screen furniture around it.
Meanwhile, Mobile Justice from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been designed to record interactions with law enforcement: Videos are automatically shared with trusted contacts specified by you, and automatically uploaded to the ACLU servers as well, so they’re safe and sound if your phone should get seized for whatever reason.
In terms of software features, Android phones vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, so you may need to do a little research on your particular model. You’ve got the different versions of Android to deal with as well — so you may have to wait for an update — but you should be able to find something suitable for your phone.
On Google Pixel and Samsung Galaxy phones, the quickest way to record video from the lock screen is to double-tap the power button to bring up the main camera app, then press and hold on the shutter button: Even though you’re in Photo mode initially, the press and hold action starts recording a video.
As you’ve launched the camera from the lock screen, the only video available without some kind of authentication will be the one you’ve just recorded; to hide this as well, lock the phone again with another press on the power button. If your photo software is set to upload the video automatically, you’re done: In the Google Photos app for Android, for instance, tap your avatar (top right), Photos settings, and Backup and sync.
Those default methods do require the camera app to be open, however. If you’ve got a Pixel phone, there’s an alternative method available via the Safety app: Tap the cog icon (top left), then Emergency SOS, and you can set up what happens on your phone when you tap the power button quickly five times. Among the options is one for recording a video in the background, which can then optionally be shared with a specific contact.
Third-party apps are also available to cover similar functionality, though they don’t quite match the Safety exactly. With the aptly named Background Video Recorder Pro, your screen needs to be unlocked and the app needs to be open when you start the recording, but you can then use other apps and even lock your phone while the recording continues in the background — the recording can then be stopped (and the video automatically shared) without unlocking your phone.
NinjaCam operates along similar lines, enabling you to record a video in the background while other apps are active or the screen is turned off. As with Background Video Recorder Pro, though, you need to have the app open when the recording actually starts. You get a few more options with this app, including a PIN lock specific to the app itself to put an extra barrier between your videos and anyone who might want to look at them.
The Mobile Justice app from the ACLU is also available on Android as well as iPhone. You can use it to record situations where you feel your safety is in danger, and because clips are automatically shared with trusted contacts and with the ACLU, your video gets out even if your phone doesn’t. The app is packed with useful info as well, including details on your rights if you’re stopped by the police or if you’re protesting.